I clipped the leash to the dog’s harness and followed her to the door before remembering that it was a cool evening. Teeny, a 4-pound Chihuahua, strained toward her freedom, but I dragged her back a few steps to snag my jacket off the back of a chair. It’s my go-to jacket, soft brown leather. I’ve had it forever.
Once outside, I realized I had forgotten something else: a poop bag. I felt around in the jacket pockets for something I could use, but all I found was a small slip of paper: a train ticket stub, dated October 2011. The word “Renfe,” the Spanish national rail service, was printed on it.
As Teeny sniffed an irresistible patch of grass, I saw myself removing that very jacket and placing it in an overhead compartment on a train my wife Barbara and I had just boarded in Madrid. When we disembarked two hours later in Córdoba, the jacket remained on the southbound train. My passport was nestled in the same inside pocket where I would find the ticket stub more than eight years later.
That trip to Spain, which we had delayed while Barbara underwent chemotherapy for uterine cancer, would be the last of many that we took together. How many? Well, we were a couple for 32 years, and I’d estimate conservatively that we boarded a plane an average of twice a year. So, more than 60 trips, not counting those made by car. Offhand I can recall 11 foreign countries we saw together, and 20 or so U.S. states. Not to mention various spots in Texas.
All these trips were memorable in one way or another, but my recollections of them are a blur of images, the chronology fuzzy. On the Greek island of Crete, we ate lobster and drank rough red wine in a remote taverna where we were the only customers. During a long European train journey, a taciturn man shared our compartment, but none of his food. On a Cape Cod beach, my daughter Megan and her friends ran screeching out of the surf when they saw what they thought was a shark fin. (It was a porpoise.) In Paris, we roused a young hotel clerk from slumber before dawn so we could check out and make an early flight.
Barbara’s passion for travel took hold in the first years after her graduation from college. She went to work as a reservations agent for Pan American Airways and got huge discounts on flights and hotels, which she eagerly exploited. By the time I met her she had journeyed, literally, around the world and had lived for several years in Beirut and London.
With the help of a photo album I found recently in my garage, I have developed a pretty clear memory of the first trip we took together. It was December 1980. Barbara and I had been dating for six months. I was 26. She was 34.
She wanted me to see New York, where she had grown up, and Cape Cod, where she and her two brothers spent their childhood summers on property owned by their mother. I had never been to either place — I’d rarely traveled outside Texas, in fact, and never to any non-U.S. destination other than Mexican border towns. I thought foreign travel was for rich people. Barbara taught me it was just a matter of making choices.
We flew to New York and spent a few days with Barbara’s brother John, five years her junior, who still lived in the same apartment in Washington Heights that his parents had leased in the 1940s. The parents were living year-round on Cape Cod by this time, but the New York lease was still in the family name and subject to rent control. John paid an absurdly low sum for an enormous apartment in Manhattan, although the neighborhood, off Broadway at 160th Street, was getting increasingly sketchy in the 1980s.
“The contents of my humble larder are at your disposal,” John said to me on the day we met. I knew immediately that I was going to like this guy.
My New-York raised hosts were patient with a first-time visitor eager to see the city’s iconic sights. One picture in the album shows me eating a hot dog on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Others show various combinations of Barbara, John and me at Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Central Park.
I had never lived in a place with real winter weather, so I didn’t have the right clothes for the trip. Before we left, at Barbara’s urging, I purchased a hat, gloves, scarf and a lined raincoat. I’m wearing the coat in many of the photos.
On one of our first days in the city, we were walking near the Plaza Hotel, checking out the horse-drawn carriages offering tours around Central Park, when I felt something wet land on my shoulder. A pigeon had anointed my new raincoat. Barbara laughed: “Welcome to New York,” she said.
John and I cleaned the droppings off the jacket in a hotel men’s room. I haven’t seen this garment for many years; I wore it on many trips and occasionally even at home in Houston, but somewhere along the way it vanished.
Not so for the leather jacket I left on the Spanish train. I can’t remember not owning it, although I’m sure Barbara was involved in its acquisition. It hangs in my closet as I write this.
When I discovered its loss, I went to the Renfe offices in Córdoba. There must be some lost-and-found process, right? I would repeat this process in Seville and Granada, the final stops on our tour of Andalusia, the southern region of Spain. I got a lot of blank stares in response to my entreaties in imperfect Spanish. I knew that if I didn’t retrieve the passport, I’d have to replace it at the U.S. embassy in Madrid, delaying our return to Houston.
Barbara was annoyed. But in spite of this problem, we managed to enjoy our trip; Barbara’s passport was sufficient for us to check into our hotels. In Córdoba, we saw the Mezquita-Catedral (mosque-cathedral), a stunning reflection of the mix of cultures that remained after the Reconquista, the Christian displacement of Muslim influence on the Iberian peninsula. In Seville, we saw the Plaza de España, one of the most beautiful public spaces in a nation replete with them. And in Granada, we toured the 9th century fortress and palace complex known as the Alhambra, one of the most stunning sights I’ve seen in all my travels.
That evening in Granada, I got an email from the American friends who had been our hosts in Madrid, where they were living temporarily. Through his company, my friend had made inquiries that finally yielded some answers: My jacket and passport were in the lost-and-found office at the train station in the coastal city of Málaga.
Málaga was about a 90-minute bus ride from Granada. I just had time to take a bus there, retrieve the jacket and get back on the last return bus of the day. Our tour bus was to return to Madrid early in the morning, so there was no margin for error.
Barbara wasn’t happy about being left alone on our last night in Andalusia, but there really wasn’t any choice. I took a cab to the bus station, waited in a long line and got a ticket and a seat just in time. I needed the restroom but couldn’t take the time, so the trip involved a lot of squirming. I learned from other passengers that the bus station was right across the street from the train station, so my errand wouldn’t take long.
My jacket was right where it was supposed to be, my passport still in the same pocket. I rejoined Barbara in Granada and we returned to Madrid with our group. A few days later we flew back home. Barbara died in a Houston hospital room three months later, surrounded by people who loved her.
It’s a trifling matter, of course, that male outerwear plays a role worth mentioning in the stories of my first and last trips with Barbara. (I’m not the first writer to make metaphorical use of such garments: “The last time I saw you, you looked so much older/Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder,” Leonard Cohen sang.) Like favorite songs, some of the objects strewn through our lives become symbols of important experiences we associate with them. The pigeon dropping-splattered raincoat was the first thing I recalled when I found the photos of the 1980 New York trip, and the tale of my missing leather jacket invariably comes up when I tell friends about that trip to Spain 31 years later.
Our memories, particularly when they involve a loved one we have lost, tend to take on a rosy hue. I treasure all the trips I took with Barbara, but the fact is that some of them involved arguments, illness, family tensions, missed connections, and anxiety (mostly mine) over how much money we were spending. It’s right, I think, that these aspects are suppressed in recollection. Why not remember mostly the good stuff? A bit of nostalgia can leaven our grief. It’s not enough, but it helps — especially for a fellow in the autumn of his years, adapting to retirement and self-quarantine during a pandemic.